Eight clipboards have new blueprints; eight batons have passed hands.
This year, more than any other, our domestic competition, the heart of New Zealand rugby, features an influx of mentors wanting to make their mark - and avoid a visit to the graveyard, where four of their axed counterparts ended last season.
“It's a bit of a graveyard for coaches isn't it? You wouldn't want to be doing it for job security would you?” incoming Wellington coach Chris Boyd said.
“I got over worrying about it. You do the best you can.
"If it's good enough, you keep getting a job; if it's not, someone else will get a chance.”
Eight coaches from last year are gone. Lieutenants have been promoted. Some familiar faces return and the trend towards former players transitioning to coaching continues.
AUCKLAND - Wayne Pivac
Somewhat of an old fox, Pivac returns to the province he guided to three titles from 1999-2003. Similar results will be expected. He takes over from Mark Anscombe, who joined Irish club Ulster after last year's disappointing campaign.
Immediate improvements will be demanded from Pivac's two-year term. There is a sense he has the pedigree, capabilities, experience and personnel to bring some much-needed joy to the blue-and-white hoops after earning a second coming through club rugby.
COUNTIES MANUKAU - Tana Umaga
Counties regained respect under former leader Milton Haig after a long period on struggle street. Umaga's presence and mana as player-coach inspired the troops last year. He will attempt to replicate that now the boots are, permanently, on the hanger. Umaga's vision is that Counties be recognised as a pathway to higher honours. He wants local talent to remain just that, rather than players feeling they must join Auckland, or jump ship to rugby league, for a future. The former All Blacks captain is an idol to many gifted Pacific Islanders. In his first head coaching role, Umaga has a good shot at promoting his side from the premiership to the championship.
BAY OF PLENTY - Kevin Schuler
Schuler, another returning boss, leads the dark-horse title contenders. Sean Horan has moved on to the New Zealand women's sevens. With over 1000 caps and exceptional loose-forwards Luke Braid and Tanerau Latimer, BOP should ruffle the big boys after stumbling late last year. Schuler knows the dynamics of this side well. From 2003-2008 he worked alongside Vern Cotter, Joe Schmidt and Andre Bell, before moving to Japan. The former All Blacks flanker will bring a hardened edge and encourage a free-spirited style. His biggest challenge is containing the enticing surroundings. “The nice, sunny, warm beaches of Mt Maunganui aren't the most conducive to competitive spirit.”
HAWKE'S BAY - Craig Philpott
With his path blocked in Canterbury, the largely unknown Philpott leapt at the chance to succeed Peter Russell. After guiding this team to three semifinals in five years, Russell was controversially sacked last year. Philpott and assistant Danny Lee have sizeable shoes to fill. In comparison to his counterparts, Philpott is a rookie. His credentials include four years with the Canterbury Colts. Provided Tasman don't pull off a major shock, breaking the Magpies' 40-year Ranfurly Shield drought will be high on Philpott's agenda in the second week.
MANAWATU - Jason O'Halloran
The intelligent former Hurricanes second-five undoubtedly has the biggest void to fill. Dave Rennie's shadow looms large over O'Halloran's three-year deal. It should, however, be a smooth transition. O'Halloran oversaw the academy in conjunction with being Turbos attack coach over the last four years. That will ensure crucial continuity. Rennie lifted the proud green-and-whites from second division battlers to top-tier competitors, with the help of Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith. With those dual guiding forces on All Blacks duty, Nick Crosswell's leadership will be all the more important, as O'Halloran attempts to maintain progress and entertain the buckethead brigade.
WELLINGTON - Chris Boyd
Boyd faces instant adversity. He's lost talented playmaker Lima Sopoaga, halfback T J Perenara and No 8 Brad Shield, all probably for the season, before a ball has been kicked. “It's fair to say in that eight, nine, 10 space we've had some very significant injuries.” Luckily, the 53-year-old local is one of the more experienced new head honchos. Boyd served a five-year apprenticeship under John Plumtree; three at Wellington and two with South Africa's Sharks. He deserves a crack at lifting the Lions from sixth after Andre Bell was asked to reapply for his job. Straight-shooting forwards coach Richard Watt has been retained. Tim Bateman is crucial to the cause. He will run the ship from first-five with other foundations based around captain Jeremy Thrush and a core of Super leaders. But true success is a tough ask for anyone here. Rennie was the last coach to win a title in the capital, 12 long years ago. Maybe Boyd is the man to craft spirit and achieve a breakthrough.
CANTERBURY - Tabai Matson
Matson openly admits he assumes a “heavy baton”. Rob Penney grew tired of waiting for promotion to Super Rugby and jumped ship to Munster after claiming four consecutive titles with the red-and-blacks. That's some record. “He's done an amazing job. Four titles - Rob's given us all a gift for this year. Expectations are part of our success. Our players expect to win. On the back of that we do well every year.” Former All Blacks midfielder Matson assisted Penney for two of those championships and inherits a squad familiar to him. The 36-year-old is a young head coach light on experience, having gathered his thoughts in Japan and Australian club rugby. But there will be no honeymoon period for Matson and new assistant Scott Robertson. Exceedingly high standards are part of this brief. “We're not trying to win five in a row, we are trying to win this one. If you take that mentality into every week it's not a burden. If you win this championship then the legacy is there for all to see.”
OTAGO - Tony Brown
A Queenslander never seemed the right fit for Dunedin. So with Phil Mooney returning home after two years, it is fitting veteran first-five Tony Brown attempts the rebuild after this proud province almost went under.
Brown brings refreshing honesty. He is passionate, and no-one will doubt his commitment. Courage typified his 71-game career for this union. At times, those understated blond curly locks resembled a madman taking on blokes twice his size. Last year, Brown enjoyed knocking over Auckland on Eden Park, breaking a 35-year drought there. Apparently the boots are, officially, finished with - though you get the feeling he would pull them on, if required.
“I'm looking forward to my first head coaching role, that's for sure.”
After a hard-fought battle to avoid liquidation, Brown will be hoping his management team of Kees Meeuws and Phil Young can inspire comparable responses from the local players. That will be a testing task without All Blacks Ben Smith, Adam Thomson and Tamati Ellison, but it is achievable.
- Sunday Star Times
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